Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nine Eleven


On September 11th, Americans take time to reflect on the tragic deaths in New York and Washington, and to honor the courage and sacrifice of the emergency workers who responded, risking and losing life and limb because they saw their duty and they never hesitated.  It is altogether fitting that we should hold dear this tragic anniversary, even as the years scab over the bleeding sore torn open on that bright morning all those years ago.

And yet.  I’m not sure I want to take part in this anymore.  Mired in a grand confluence of greed, exploitation, tribal hatred and geopolitical ignorance, it all seems a bit self-serving, an ostentatious demonstration of mourning and anger directed not only at the guilty, but at vast swaths of humanity who have been punished in the most horrific fashion for nothing other than the nation they lived in.

First, there was the heartless, calculated exploitation of the attacks by the Bush/Cheney administration.  Two years after the event, the cruel political and media manipulation had already rendered it something different, something ugly.  They took the righteous anger that smoldered in all Americans and turned it into a murderous rage, and then unleashed it on innocent victims all over the world.  In a series of methodical steps they played on the fear and anger of the American population, driving them to throw away much of the values and guarantees that formed the basis for the American form of governance.  It is hard, now, to truly honor the pain and sacrifice without closing our eyes to the events that followed.  If we can no longer embrace the loss without accepting the guilt, it becomes a completely different kind of day of recognition.  

In terms of lives wasted, of blood spilled and treasure squandered, of widespread destruction of not just buildings and bridges and schools and all the things that make a modern nation, but of lives and families and whole populations, 9/11 was truly a pittance.  It is hard to imagine what must someone in Gaza, or Beirut, or Congo or Sudan or Columbia or Mexico must think when they see us prostrate with sadness, spluttering with anger and cowering in fear over this one tragic event from a decade ago.  How pampered we must appear, how insulated from the arbitrary, almost random violence and destruction that characterizes so much of the world outside our borders.  After the attacks, America went on a rampage, lashing out in mindless anger and hatred like a spoiled child who received a rare, unanticipated punishment.  We destroyed two countries, and are well on our way to the destruction of a third (not surprisingly, all overwhelmingly Muslim nations), we killed hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, and destroyed the lives and livelihoods of millions more.  And still we mourn, crying hot tears of anger, lashing out at people distantly removed from the original attackers, neatly plugging new names (Taliban, AQAP, TTP) when we can find nothing of the original al Quaeda to grind into dust.  

The legacy of 9/11 is a foul history of a wealthy, pampered society who refused to understand they must continue to live in the very world they dominate.  From a perfectly cold, geo-strategic analysis, al Quaeda, Iran, China and Russia were the winners, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan were the losers, and the rest of the world can only watch in rapt fascination as we tear ourselves apart, rendering all of the values and beliefs that made America a special place and time a sad, quaint historical anachronism.  While the rest of the world goes on about its business, building trade and negotiating broadly beneficial agreements, America continues to harden itself, locking down borders, building not just a gigantic military capability but a security apparatus and national security state that already makes the old eastern bloc pale in comparison.  We imprison more people than any other nation, and now we do so without due process.  We wiretap, we surveil, we infiltrate, we watch everyone.  And we hate.  Americans have no corner on hate, but we have a special gift for it, a kind of hyper-nationalist tribal fear of ‘the other’ that allows many of us to revere our constitution even as we seek to deny it’s universality.  

The attacks of nine years ago were tragic, a crime of huge proportions and it’s own horrific demonstration of the effects of mindless hate.  But like all tragedies, the attacks had within them the possibility of growth, a lesson to be learned, a way to find some bits of value in the ashes.  Sadly, it appears we looked backward, learning the wrong lessons, choosing to match barbarity with barbarity, blood and fire with even more blood and fire. On this anniversary of that sad, violent day, there is much to be mourned.  But there is nothing to be celebrated.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Article III Standing

The world has truly lost it’s mind.  Economically, politically, philosophically, intellectually there is all manner of madness, dishonesty and demagoguery everywhere one might turn.  And there seems to be, recently, a dearth of truth - tellers, of courageous people who will take the risk of speaking the truth, an understandable development for there has never been a more concentrated, effective effort to stifle and silence the truth.  With more media, and more conversation than ever, there is no clarity.  No definition is immutable, no concept is unambiguous, no position is outside the parameters of “reasonable debate”.  As part of a national dialog, people declare their bigotry and hate, claim, against all evidence, their own victimization, typically at the hands of the disenfranchised and powerless, and hype fear of others to absurd levels. No challenge exists that cannot be described as an existential threat.

I gaze across this blasted, Orwellian landscape of of spittle-flecked outrage and convenient lies and I feel lost, hopeless in a world where everyone lies, everyone knows that everyone lies, and no one has the courage to call the liars to account.  I wonder where it all leads, what happens in the end when the truth is toxic, actions create outrage and to try to improve upon the situation carries an unacceptable professional risk.  When we speak of a procedural bias to the status quo, we actually know we are really describing a system that has evolved to protect itself from accountability.  But to admit as much is to admit defeat, so just as George Bush appeared on television every couple of weeks for YEARS to tell us that, in Iraq, we were “makin’ progress on the ground”, all around us we see discussions about proposed solutions, solutions that can never be implemented because someone would have to accept responsibility for their potential failure.

In this time of hopelessness and dysfunction, we need some kind of magic, something to serve as an amulet to ward off the worst of the deadly stupidity and angry, amorphous fear.  For me, lately, it has become a brief incantation, spoken softly under my breath to remind myself that no matter how thoroughly the game is rigged, to play is always to risk losing.  And what is that phrase that reminds me that at some point, even a corrupt system might work for those who do not hold an ownership stake?  “Article III Standing”.  Yep.  I know, vague, obscure to the point of meaninglessness, and with all we stand to lose, all we are losing even as we watch, it’s a forlorn hope in a small battle to hold back the darkness.  

But it makes me smile.  It is spit in the face of liars and haters, it will require them to expose their hatred for what it is, it just might cause everyone to take a step back and think twice before telling an unsupportable story to justify the unjustifiable.  What, exactly, is Article III Standing?   To quote Wikipedia:  

In the United States, the current doctrine is that a person 
cannot bring a suit challenging the constitutionality of a law 
unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that the plaintiff is 
(or will imminently be) harmed by the law.”  

And as California’s Proposition 8 lawsuit wends it’s way through the appeals process, at some point one of the appeals courts is going to have to make a determination of the standing of the defendants under Article III.  They will be given ample opportunity to make the case that the marriage of people they do not know, who do not live near them, who will never have contact with them or their families, harms them.  Unlike the lies and fearful fabrications in the Proposition 8 campaign, they won’t be able to talk about what schools might teach, or what their church might have to accept.  They will have to support the long-standing claim that the mere marriage of two people of the same sex harms them, and the only relief the government can provide for this harm is to prevent that marriage entirely.

Just as we saw in US District Court, but even more explicitly, some poor lawyers are going to have to stand before a judge and the people of California and try to make the case that allowing other people to have access to the same civil marriage rights they have will cause them some kind of harm.  Since this is clearly, demonstrably and inarguably false, they will look like fools.  Even better, they will look like tools, cannon fodder in another rear-guard battle for institutionalized hatred.  Now, sure, I believe firmly in marriage equality.  Philosophically, that’s because I believe the concept of equality is as simple as it is necessary, but intellectually, it’s because the only real case one can possibly make against allowing people who love each other to marry is “I don’t like homosexuals, I think they are icky”.  And that’s just not good enough.  Nowhere close.

Who knows how it will play out.  Perhaps the court will see it differently, and allow these people the Standing to move the case forward.  But maybe, hopefully, there will be a larger benefit.  Many of the arguments being made regularly, that global warming is a hoax, that waterboarding is not torture, that stimulus spending is useless for creating demand, all the inherently intellectually dead or dodgy arguments used to fuel the endless ‘debates’ that prevent the implementation of even an attempt at a solution,  are arguments easily debunked in an honest conversation, and perhaps the people making them will see what happens when they are specifically challenged to defend them on the merits, and just maybe they will back away.  Some facts are simply facts, and for too long it has been possible to challenge them with specious and disingenuous arguments.  It’s time to demand a little more rigor, to enforce some kind of minimum threshold for veracity, and THEN see where the debate takes us.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Beck?


Glenn Beck doesn’t bother me very much at all.  Every circus needs a ringmaster, and as such things go, he’s not even close to being the worst.  Before Beck there was Hannity, before Hannity there was Drudge, before Drudge there was Limbaugh, on and on, forever and ever, amen.  They’re interchangeable parts, and they serve the same purpose - reiterating and reaffirming to the loyal subjects the ineffable correctness of their beliefs, instructing them in the current dogma, arguments and talking points, and creating the daily or weekly outrage necessary to keep the populist rage boiling at an appropriate level.  They are in essence created by their audience, more reflection than resource, and worshiped for their invariant, ever reliable redundancy.  It’s important to remember that they never changed a mind, or persuaded someone who wasn’t already a true believer.

Much of the conservative extremist canon is built on a rickety structure of falsehoods, half-truths, disingenuous narratives and faulty analyses.  As a result, people who adopt this belief system are always willing to invest in messaging that supports their worldview and reinforces the core beliefs.  This investment includes time, money and a kind of concentrated, wilful ignorance, and is all the more necessary because the world keeps offering evidence contrary to those core beliefs.  When someone points out that the 14th Amendment, just like the 2nd, is part of the constitution they so deeply revere, or that by very definition Muslim Americans have the same rights as Christian Americans, that there is NO WAY a billion dollar tax cut can increase revenues, or even that overturning decades of settled campaign finance law is the very definition of judicial activism,  they need to have a refuge to which they can run, safely restoring their tribal fear and hatred, wrapping themselves ever more tightly in the mantle of victimhood, blotting out the truths forced upon them by a diverse and secular world.

Beck and Limbaugh are merely the pinnacle of this poisonous tree, the major leagues of right-wing extremist rhetoric, the household names of fear and bigotry.  Beneath them on the food chain is a vast array of radio hosts, pundits, bloggers and authors, the unhinged and the opportunistic, bubbling up from the fever swamps that feed the worst of America’s uniquely angry population.  Should either one be excommunicated, denounced as apostates for insufficient purity, another would rise to the top in short order.  That there is a limit to how many of these interchangeable voices can be supported by their extremist constituency speaks powerfully to how limited their numbers ultimately are.  But with one exception, they don’t represent a danger, or put any genuinely important beliefs or values at risk.  

While their audience is quite small in absolute numbers, and the kind of easily debunked propaganda they offer is unlikely to change anyone’s mind or add to to that audience, it is important to bear in mind that they are speaking to the extremist fringe, and in any self-selecting extremist community there are some people who are genuinely dangerous.  Even worse, the American right-wing extremist fringe is deeply enamored of violent, even eliminationist rhetoric, and their fondness for, and attachment to firearms must never be underestimated.  Therefore, people like Beck and Limbaugh must be recognized for having the power to mobilize these people, to call on their anger and their fear, even of imaginary or grossly hyped “threats”, and that is the one significant risk they represent.  In the grand tradition of the American political right, just as the tea parties will insist against all evidence they are not motivated by racial animosity, the leading pundits of the right will be shocked and offended if it is suggested to them that their audience represents the threat of political violence.  But any dispassionate observer can see clearly that it does.  What other political movement thinks it’s a fine idea to carry firearms, even military rifles to political rallies?  So far, they have shown some restraint, calls to violence framed as an alternative to be saved for a more desperate future, couched in ambiguous language such that the worst of the crazies haven’t detected a clear set of ‘marching orders’.

Where they do have an impact outside of their own echo chamber, to whatever extent we’re willing to allow them to do it, is annoy and anger liberals.  And THAT does serve a valuable purpose for their movement.  As long as they can spew whatever dishonest and inaccurate talking points they wish and liberals feel they have to respond, the media has a free pass to cover it as a legitimate debate, with both sides merely claiming the same fealty to the truth, the differences reduced to subtle shades of grey.  As long as liberals watch them scrupulously, breathlessly repeating their daily spew as if it somehow constituted news, desperately pointing out their lies and hypocrisy and seeking to have them fired or boycotted, then they will continue to reach a much wider audience than they otherwise might.  The things they say are baseless propaganda, an endless serving of red meat for the true believers of the movement.  They have no power to move debate, to change minds or to influence the larger population.  They are unimportant, meaningless really, imbued only with the importance we are willing to give them.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Forecast: Hysteria, with Increasing Stupidity


There have always been bizarre, irrational and hysterical responses to certain events.  Sometimes you could read about them and smile a sad, slightly guilty smile and move on.  Other times, you just cringed and averted your gaze.  But in general, there was a well-understood, somewhat narrow range of rational responses one might expect from any event.  Indeed, I remember a time when you could lay out any group or individual’s public response to any given event on a graph and rather easily determine if it fell below the threshold of rational behavior and could be reasonably discussed; or whether a response exceeded fell outside that range and went far beyond anything that might be considered a valuable contribution to the dialog.  I think of those days as “the adult years”.

Now, with all the media casting about hourly for something new to show us, we have created a self-perpetuating “outrage machine”.  It is hard to come up with anything so banal and generally acceptable that you can’t find someone, somewhere shrieking with the abiding butthurt of agonizing victimhood.  Everything offends someone, and that very offense is sure to offend someone else, which leads to a mad, squirrel-like scurrying about to announce and then to denounce the latest outrage, every one of which is the most appalling, offensive act in human history, until the next one eclipses the previous outrage and the squirrels drop that nut in order to scurry about, outraged by some newly egregious offense.

All of which brings us to a new video game release by Electronic Arts, a warfare simulation called “Medal of Honor”.  And what has this game, set in Afghanistan, done to earn the panicked opprobrium of flag-draped patriots from Fox news to the Armed Forces commissary system?  Why, it allows players to play either as American or Taliban forces.  A war simulation that allows the game to be played from the viewpoint of either side?  Unprecedented outrage, they shriek.  Only they're wrong. When I was a young man, I had a board game that simulated the battle for the Normandy beachhead we call D-Day.  Playing the Nazi’s side wasn’t an option - as it was a two-player game, it was a necessity.  That’s right, in order to play the game SOMEBODY, some wholesome young American male had to be the German forces, fighting to push the American invasion into the sea.  Oddly, I can’t remember anyone who was shocked by this, or really, anyone who even thought it was odd or problematic.

In a war, there has to be at least two sides.  Any discussion, conversation, simulation or education about warfare by definition MUST include a realistic understanding of the goals and motivations of all sides.  Pretending that there are not dedicated, motivated people who fight against Americans is beyond unrealistic - it is childish in the simplicity of its worldview and provincial, even tribal in the way conflicts involving Americans are viewed.  “But they’re killing Americans!” they scream.  How can they allow the people who play this game as virtual Taliban to kill virtual Americans?  One can only wonder, do they understand that this is happening, in the real world, every day?  Honestly, if you don’t have the stomach for imaginary American casualties, you ought to be out on the barricades every day demanding an end to the war in Afghanistan.

But all that misses the point.  The key question, the one they can’t answer, the one that exposes the entire tempest as nothing but another manufactured outrage, is what are they afraid of?  What awful thing do they think will happen when American gamers can play the role of Taliban fighters in a simulation of the Afghan conflict?  Obviously, anyone who’s sensibilities are that easily damaged is unlikely to play this sort of video game, and if they do they can always stick to the American side, avoiding any threat to truth, justice and the American way that might arise.  For most players, though, it is merely a game, with sides labeled “American” and “Taliban”, to be played and mastered, another example of interactive cinematic entertainment that, like the earlier controversial “Grand Theft Auto” is understood at the deepest level to be imaginary, a game to be played in a digital realm, not to be in any way confused with things that happen in the real world.

Afghanistan is a brutal war in a remote land with the harshest terrain imaginable.  Logistics can be a nightmare, roads are mostly non-existent and the enemy fighters are hardened by the conditions and decades of war.  Perhaps, by seeing the war through the eyes of the insurgents, American children might learn something about the strength and courage of the American infantryman, and if the games leads to any deeper thinking at all, might bring some deeper understanding about the nature, costs and consequences of a militarized foreign policy.  America used to be a self-confident nation, powerful and fearless, secure in the understanding that we have nothing to fear from symbols and shadows, carried forward by the sense that we needn’t fear our own.  Today everything is a threat, danger lurks in the smallest of inconsequential things, and none of us are safe, even from our own children.  It would be laughable, what we have allowed ourselves to become, if it wasn’t such a tragic, irrecoverable loss.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Incoherence or Dishonesty?

One of the hallmarks of the campaigns being run by candidates in the midterm elections is the utter refusal of the Republican candidates to put forward a governing agenda, or any specific policies or legislation they support.  Now you could certainly say, and it would not be inaccurate, that in the real world, none of their larger goals, from reducing the tax burden on the wealthy to eliminating regulation of business and industry to more aggressive wars is in any way popular with the vast majority of the electorate, but it also raises a larger question.  

The most fervent, vocal supporters of the most extreme right-wing candidates of this election cycle has been a movement that calls itself the tea parties.  One of their overarching themes, perhaps the one definitive theme that shapes all their other views and beliefs (at least if we take them at their word that their worldview is not driven primarily by racial and sectarian fear and hatred) is their dislike, distrust and fear of government.  Since Reagan, the conservative movement has sought to take political power because, they say, government is too powerful, too expensive and too deeply involved in the everyday lives of the people.

It is odd, then, that at the very same time they demand so much of government.  They want government to control the reproductive health of every woman in the country.  They want government to actively manage relationships, love, sex and marriage.  They want government to work harder to control who comes to America, what they do here, and to see that many are incarcerated and deported.  Strangely, they feel that occupational safety, food safety and integrity and the health care of America’s citizens are areas where the government has no positive role to play.   And if you ask them who might rebuild America’s tattered infrastructure or do the goundwork that will transition the US to a less oil-dependent future, the best they can offer is “the market”, even thought there is to this point no indication that the market has any interest in issue beyond next quarter’s profits.

But in terms of the elections, at least, there’s a much greater paradox even than this.  These vocal activists, who demand less government, lower taxes and less spending, indeed the very dismantlement of larges swaths of the existing bureaucracy from the Department of Education and Energy to the FDA are, without exception, supporting candidates who simply refuse to say what they’ll do if elected.  I don’t know about you, but if the basis for my political ideology was distrust for the government, a candidate who didn’t tell me clearly what he or she intended to do, specifically and with the price tag in plain view would not have earned the right to expect my vote.  The fact that they say they’re for lower taxes and smaller government would be somewhat less than reassuring to anyone who has seen the way the Republicans have governed in the past.  

While the more mainstream of the Republican candidates go on cable news and offer largely unchallenged platitudes, generalities and outright falsehoods, the more extreme Republican candidates, perhaps chastened by the Rand Paul post-victory debacle, simply refuse to answer questions or speak to news outlets they are uncertain aren’t significantly favorable, even partisan in their own ideology.  For someone already suspicious and disenchanted with the people and the processes of public policy-making, how this can be acceptable in a candidate, how that candidate might be trusted after all the rhetoric about the disingenuousness and outright criminality of government is beyond comprehension.  

As we have seen again and again, from Reagan to Clinton to Bush to Obama, ideology in a vacuum is meaningless, and the more important questions are specific ones about governing philosophy and specific agendas.  Every time I turn on my TV I see Meg Whitman, telling me what an incompetent lying louse Jerry Brown is.  Well, ok, but even if I’m convinced, what is Meg willing to tell me about herself?  Her commercials assure us that Meg “has a plan”.  Have you ever tried to find out what, exactly, that plan is?  Good luck.  On jobs, the plan is four targeted tax cuts and one tax credit to increase agricultural investment.  You know, of the five, I might even agree with two, but nobody seems willing to mention that the Governor does not have the power to enact taxation legislation and the legislature has been hopelessly deadlocked on tax issues for over a decade.  Her plan doesn’t mention how she plans to overcome this problem.

If the tea partiers were sincere, they would demand that candidates give them specific information about how they intend to meet the demands of this constituency.  In spending issues, particularly with a dogmatic across-the-board refusal to consider any tax increases as part of a revenue/spending package, they should insist that their candidates not only tell them what they’d cut, but how they plan on implementing those cuts.  And if that constituency is demanding smaller government, they should be unwilling to support a candidate who refuses to tell them what parts of government he or she would target for elimination.

Alas, they are not sincere.  It is clear what they are, just as it is clear what they are not.   They are a fearful, hateful, shrinking portion of the American demographic, increasingly geographically isolated and only one more generation from irrelevance.  They are lying to us, to each other, and most egregiously of all, to themselves.  They don’t care about the things they say they want.  They just want to feel safe and powerful again, unthreatened in their supremacy, safe in their social constructs and free to live their lives of public piety, demanding others conform to their outdated social model and bizarre cultural norms.